Written for MusicOMH.com
Adapted from the Australian dramatist Tim Conigrave’s memoirs of the same name, Holding The Man has a few gimmicks up its sleeve but is fundamentally a simple but ultimately tragic love story. So while the posters advertising this production may all bear the image of celebrated Kath and Kim writer/performer Jane Turner, its success in fact depends on the two male leads who play out that relationship from faltering first kiss to eventual heartbreak.
Here, there can be no complaints. The play follows Tim and John Caleo, two lads from Western Australia who fall in love very young during the 1970s.
They face parental disapproval (John more so than Tim) and a general ignorance, but more often than not prejudice is put to one side simply because they are hugely likable - and importantly that warmth of personality comes across in waves thanks to actors Guy Edmonds and Matt Zemeres who excel as Tim and John respectively. Nice guys do not have to be dull, and this story is engrossing precisely because Edmonds and Zemeres make you care for them and the relationship; you laugh along when they playfully tease each other at the start of their relationship, and the audience audibly groan with disappointment when Tim later admits he has played away.
This being a play about a gay couple during the 1970s, 80s and 90s, it follows a grimly predictable path – both Tim and John are diagnosed HIV positive in 1985 – so while the whole production is imbued with Tim’s wonderful sense of humour, the second act does not seek to offer the same level of laughs as the first. Some scenes lack the emotional punch they strive for, notably when Tim tells his parents of his illness, but others are heartbreaking in their simplicity; a romantic meal in which the two men calmly discuss their greatest regrets and achievements is particularly affecting.
Writer Tommy Murphy has ensured that the stage production of Holding The Man retains the sense of the memoir in that it everything is seen through the eyes of Tim himself – in fact Edmonds never leaves the stage. Tim’s own love of the theatre (he trained at Australia’s respected National Institute of Dramatic Art and wrote and devised several original pieces) opens the door for overt theatricality in the play and this is one of its great strengths. The lighting, all based on the idea of individual bulbs around a dressing room mirror, is consistently inventive, and puppetry appears throughout and to great effect, especially when a gaunt puppet stands in place of the ailing John. Plus, costume changes regularly occur on stage, giving the excellent supporting cast the chance to show off their dramatic range, in particular Turner who gets many of the biggest laughs, and Simon Burke who plays everything from a homosexual, politicised hippie student to an uptight 70-something.
This play may have nothing new to say about AIDS or homophobia, but then politics is not at its heart. What is important to the production is what was clearly most important to Tim and John, and so it is simply a love story, but one that is genuinely funny, impressively performed and imaginatively staged.